(Sent to major newspapers in Virginia and Florida at the time Senator Byrd introduced and Congress passed legislation requiring every institution receiving federal funds to implement a Civic Education program with employees on or around September 17th of each year. The article attempted to point out the continued passage of meaningless laws at the state and national level would not do as much as periodically holding the separate states accountable for how well they prepare students with the requisite skills and knowledge for citizenship. After asking editors to possibly devote space to the complex issue, the author argued, "It is a national tragedy what is happening in Congress and the possible consequence is of such importance that it necessitates some depth in coverage. Feel free, of course, to edit as you need." It is not known if papers printed the article or not.
Calling Senator Byrd’s Bluff
Sept. 12, 2005 - (Sent to major newspapers in Virginia and Florida)
I had the pleasure of watching Sen. Robert Byrd deliver on C-SPAN a rousing and emotional Constitution Day speech on September 16th at Shepherd University in West Virginia. As the sponsor of the bill it was very appropriate. The senator intoned how government requires an informed citizenry. His remarks were laced with the wisdom of such great statesmen as Cicero, our Founders, Daniel Webster and even Ronald Reagan. The audience chuckled when he related how the ‘Great Communicator’ once remarked “government is like a baby’s elementary canal – it has a hearty appetite on one end and no responsibility on the other.” Warming to the occasion, he lamented that our calendars generally do not specify “Constitution Day” on their page for September, yet they never fail to point out the phases of the moon or the First Day of Spring. He got another round of chuckles when he pointed out that Americans more often take their cars to Jiffy Lube than vote. He then soberly asked the audience how long the nation, just like any other machine that requires constant vigilance and periodic maintenance, could be expected to endure when we care more about our cars than our responsibilities as citizens? The laughter ended rather abruptly.
Now I’m all for giving the nation a good civics lesson. Heaven knows we sure need one. But when haven’t we? Survey after survey for over 30 years has demonstrated this. My generation remembers how stunned Americans were to see Chief Justice Warren Burger resign from one of the highest positions of power in the nation to become honorary Chairman of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Commission. He did so, he said, to give the nation a very-much needed lesson in civics. Nothing’s changed much. Warren is no longer with us when we desperately need him and only the names of the surveys have changed.
Back to Senator Byrd. It was a wonderful speech but I remain opposed to Constitution Day. I oppose it as an educator who has put more than 30 years into teaching about the Constitution because I’m tired of national leaders and Congressmen who can easily appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars to train teachers of U.S. History and Civics to do their jobs better, but then can’t find a measly $10 million to hold states accountable for how well they prepare their students in these subjects. Senate Bill 860, which was aimed at ending the second-class status of Civics and U.S. History on NAEP, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, is languishing in Congress and will probably die again. No one noticed when it’s sponsor Lamar Alexander stated U.S. History is our worst subject. It died in the last Congress without a hearing. Although it recently had a hearing and noted historian David McCullough spoke to the Senators about the civic crisis the nation faces, it will probably die again. Interestingly, this NAEP bill would only fund enough to know how students perform in up to 10 states. We compare all 50 in all the other subjects! Is this the best that Congress can do -- spend a half BILLION dollars training teachers and pass Constitution Day while continuing to ignore holding states accountable for one of the most important reasons for public education?
Why is S860 important? Because without it, Governors like Florida’s Jeb Bush can talk about the importance of imbuing students with civic knowledge while actually remaining hostile to it. Governor Bush sits on the Education Commission of the States whose subsidiary group, the National Center for Learning and Citizenship works to improve civic education programs. He’s also an “Honorary Member of Constitution Day, Inc.” Civic educators in Florida, however, know the truth. He signed into law a measure a few years back that eliminated American History, American Government and Economics as graduation courses for all Florida students. For years, his legislature leaders have stymied attempts by civic educators to require that student performance in Civics and History be allowed to be taken into consideration when children are reviewed for promotion from one grade to the next. The measure, which once was passed by the entire House and which never had one vote cast in opposition to it in the Senate, was killed by legislative leaders because it was on a fast track for approval.
Why? Because it appears that some feared that it might, someday, somehow, in some way by some future legislature be interpreted as meaning these courses should be added to the states’ assessment program. [How anyone could arrive at that conclusion is amazing. It’s a totally separate statute that was NOT addressed in the measure.] Civic educators in Florida know that Jeb Bush and his statewide legislative leaders oppose adding these vital subjects to the state-wide assessment program. This is, by the way, completely contrary to the stated goals of the ECS and NCLC of which Jeb is a proud member and “Director”.
Nevertheless, Jeb has endorsed the wide-scale sampling of students in our state -- 70,000 of them a couple of years ago -- on very intrusive Drug, Tobacco and Alcohol Surveys that contains literally hundreds of questions. Thus, Florida can know with scientific accuracy when the last time a typical student in a middle school was offered a swig of beer, a 'joint' -- or something worse. Sadly, the Governor has ignored the only study ever conducted in the state to assess students’ civic understanding and which has demonstrated that Florida's University students are more ignorant of basic civic knowledge than their peers across the nation. Of course, with regard to K-12 public education, such understandings are anyone’s guess! Things were so bad that Florida Congressman Jim Davis, now a Gubernatorial Candidate to replace Jeb, actually introduced a bill in Congress to punish his own state with a loss of federal education funds because of its hostile attitude toward civic education. Finally, when asked to break the legislative logjam on an important civic education measure two years ago, direct pleas to Governor Bush fell upon deaf ears. Amazingly, the honorary titles for his keen sense of civic-mindedness keep coming.
This brings us back to Senator Byrd’s “Constitution Day”. Congress needs to pass this bill that would begin to place civic and historical understanding on an equitable standing with other core curriculum subjects. Then, states like Florida won’t be able to hide in a cloak of total civic ignorance. Senator Byrd and his colleagues can do better. Only the very survival of this Republic hangs in the balance.
The writer has been a social studies educator, a former elementary school principal, and serves as Legislative Chair for the Florida Council for the Social Studies. He may be reached at JSBovee@aol.com.
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